Translated by Amanda Love Darragh
“Many people believe that their childhood was the happiest time of their life. But this is not so. They are in fact the most difficult years…”
I spent the summer thinking…
How do you like that for an opening sentence? I agree, it’s a bit rubbish, isn’t it. What did you expect, though? “Mr So-and-So fell in love with some bimbo and left his wife…” or “Inspector Tony was killed in broad daylight by a bullet to the back of the head…”? Or maybe “The vampire ambushed his victim in the toilets…” or “Aliens came to subjugate Earth and turn us into slaves…”? Any of those would have you glancing at the first page then quickly turning it to find out what happens next. Same old, same old. You already know how it will end: the cheating husband will find that the grass isn’t always greener, the cold-blooded murderer will be locked up, the vampire will be destroyed or turned into a harmless puppet, and the insidious aliens will be rounded up like rabbits, neutralised, preserved in formaldehyde and stuck in some museum outside Los Angeles. The museum will be burnt to the ground in a forest fire, and humanity will once again lack any evidence of cosmic invasion. Aren’t you bored of all that yet? Personally, I’m sick to death of it.
How old are you? Come on, tell me honestly. I’m not just being nosy, it’s actually very important. Have you ever seen an advert for a film with the warning “Not suitable for children under the age of sixteen”? Yes, I bet you have. Here’s what I think: I’ve never come across anything more ridiculous in all of my thirteen years. OK, so I won’t actually be thirteen for another month or so, but that’s just a technicality. And besides, in a year’s time I’ll have my own passport, which will state clearly and categorically that the holder is a citizen of the Russian Federation (by the way, can anyone tell me why my grandmother, my mother and Lilka, my elder sister, are referred to in their passports in the masculine gender, rather than the feminine?). Well, what kind of citizen will I be if somebody else gets to decide what I can and can’t see at the cinema? It drives me insane the way that adults think we’re all ignorant and stupid. What could I possibly be exposed to in some idiotic film that I haven’t already seen in real life? It might even be a decent film, I’m not disputing that, but why the ludicrous alarmism? It really winds me up.
On the other hand (and this has only just occurred to me) maybe it’s some kind of marketing campaign. It still gets on my nerves, though. But whatever. That’s beside the point. So anyway, if I were the editor I would write in capitals on the cover of this book “Not suitable for anyone over the age of eighteen” (Dear Editor, in the event that you should decide to publish this manuscript I ask you to take my wishes into consideration). I’m serious. If you’re over eighteen, and especially if you’re married and have children, you’d be better off just putting my book back on the shelf… or throwing it out of the window. Just make sure it doesn’t hit anyone on the head, or you’ll only try to blame it on Misha Mirov. I’m always getting the blame for everything. Basically, what I’m saying is that it’s a really bad idea for adults to read this story. I’m being completely serious. If you don’t believe me, what the hell, keep reading. Just don’t then accuse me of spouting claptrap. By the way, I still don’t know the real meaning of that word. My grandmother, Lilya Stepanovna (I won’t bother adding her surname as it’s the same as the rest of the family’s), uses it a lot. I’ve got a fairly good idea, of course, but let’s just check. Hang on, I’ll just look it up on the internet…
While the page is loading let me tell you a bit about my grandmother. ‘Grandmother’ might be her official job title, but to be honest as far as real grandmothers are concerned (old ladies, I mean) she’s nothing like one. You’d be more likely to find grey hairs on my mother’s head than on Lilya Stepanovna’s. If I didn’t know she was my grandmother I’d think she was my mother’s elder sister. Well, what do you expect when she and Mum go to the hairdresser and beauty salon together? Gran’s got a heart of gold, but given free rein she would nag me to death. Even Dad (her son) sometimes has to intervene. Mother, he says, stop giving the lad such a hard time. Lilya Stepanovna used to react with indignation and shout at my Dad, “I’m not standing by while you let him run riot!” But lately she has been limiting herself to the phrase, “Do as you please, I’m having nothing more to do with it!” (by ‘it’, she means me) and going into her bedroom or out for a walk. The first time she said it I was over the moon. Finally, I thought, she’s going to get off my case. Oh, how na;ve I was. After her walk Gran forgot all about her promise and started playing her audio-book The Ethics of Children’s Behaviour as soon as she saw me in the hall. I escaped after one mini-lecture, totally confused. Did I honestly think she would leave me alone? No chance! When I’m rummaging about in the fridge and I knock something over, Gran always uses a very funny expression: “Don’t go falling things over in there!”
Right, it’s loaded. Ah, here we go! According to the great Vladimir Dahl ‘claptrap’ means rubbish, gobbledegook, hogwash, gibberish, twaddle, drivel or nonsense. I thought as much. Gran’s a big fan of obscure, incomprehensible words. But let me make one thing clear… the aforementioned derogatory terms do not in any way apply to my narrative. And if you have decided to read on, can we just agree: no insults.
I bet you’re wondering what’s so special about my writing. To be honest, nothing really. No, tell a lie, there is one thing that sets it apart, and it’s the same thing that will keep prompting the adult reader to break off and denounce me… for my story contains none of the lies or hypocrisy that adults need to soothe their souls when they read their favourite books. I noticed a long time ago that if you tell the truth without any exaggerations or fabrications people look at you like you’re an idiot. But all it takes is one little white lie for them to strike up their saccharine song: ah, what a clever and sensible boy! Or, even worse, ah, what a well-mannered child! If only you knew what this sensible and well-mannered boy-child was really thinking you’d have a fit. I’d like to see you try living among hypocrites without resorting to lies and fake smiles.
But this is my territory! No one can interrupt me, silence me or catch me red-handed. No one can climb into my head or start correcting my thoughts. And, as the saying goes, what is written by pen cannot be destroyed by an axe. OK, so I’m using the keyboard on my laptop rather than a pen, but the meaning still holds true. I realise that I might come across as a bit of a show-off (and just for the record, I don’t care what you think of me), but I already know that my story’s going to be unique. Do you want to know why? Because I don’t intend to correct a single thing. I’ll send it to the publishers exactly as I write it. And I won’t let them edit it under any circumstances. Of course they’ll correct my typos… But I wouldn’t even do that. I’d rather the reader saw not only my thoughts but my mistakes as well. Then it would be one hundred per cent authentic.
At the moment I’m laid up in hospital with broken ribs and one leg in traction. I keep looking at myself from the side. Do you know what I look like at the moment? A scaffolding winch. You know, the kind they use to suspend platforms from the roof for the workers to stand on when they’re doing something to the front of a building. I’m not sure that’s the most accurate comparison, but for the time being I can’t think of a better one. I’d be lying if I said I was having a truly terrible time here. Of course, there are a number of inconveniences – I won’t go into detail, you’ve probably got a fairly good idea – but on the other hand it’s not all bad. One thing’s for sure though, the food’s nothing to write home about – I’ve got enough of it left on my bedside table to last me a lifetime. I’m already sick of the sight of it, even the oranges. But the fact that I can read whatever and as much as I like in here without anyone bothering me is definitely one of the benefits. The second is, of course, my laptop. Without it I’d definitely have escaped by now, plaster cast and all. The doctor warned me that I’d be stuck in here until the end of August. If Lilya Stepanovna were lying here instead of me (God forbid, of course), she would say: well, that’s our St Georges’ Day taken care of! And I say: well, that’s your summer holidays taken care of! Oh, I almost forgot, there’s a third benefit – the internet. As long as my parents don’t forget to top up my credit.
Before I continue, there’s something else I should explain. To be honest, when they hoisted me (or rather, my leg) up on this damn gallows, reading was not exactly top of my list of priorities. But during the first week I was in here, to distract myself from the pain, alleviate the boredom and forget about the indignity of my situation, I started reading. It wasn’t even so much reading as… Have you ever seen a hungry dog put away a stolen sausage? I did, once – this dog grabbed a whole sausage out of an old woman’s shopping bag while she stood there gaping, then ran about forty or fifty metres away and started gobbling it up. As the old dear ran towards the canine thief in an attempt to retrieve what she could, he finished off his ill-gotten gains. It was more like a magic trick than a meal. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, there’s no way I’d believe that it was possible to devour an entire sausage in such a short space of time. Anyway, I consumed books the same way that dog consumed the sausage. You’ll laugh, but when my bedside table began facing a book shortage I even worked my way through most of Michel de Montaigne’s Essays (left behind by some recovered professor). I only understood maybe half of it, of course, but that half stimulated my brain to such an extent that feathers began sprouting on my shoulders. Ha! I’m joking, of course. That’s just my sense of humour (a bit stupid, I know). But I suppose in a way I did start to grow wings.
Joking aside, Montaigne’s words made a huge impression on me: “Two individuals never form the same opinion about the same thing, and it is impossible to observe two identical opinions not only in different individuals but also in any one individual at different times.” You said it, Michel. I thought long and hard about his words and came to the conclusion that the philosopher was right. Last summer I read The Life and Adventures of an Eccentric by Vladimir Zheleznikov, about the escapades of the young pioneer Boris Bandito-Cheato. It was fun. All about school, teachers, pupils, lots of amusing anecdotes. But it didn’t really strike a chord. Something wasn’t right. Not quite right, anyway. I still remember the final sentence, though: “It might be full of pot-holes but life is still wonderful – keep going!” I don’t know how wonderful it is, but I’d very much like to keep going. Full steam ahead, even, regardless of the pot-holes. But, alas, I have to wait more than a month before continuing my journey.
Thanks to my friend and classmate Yurka Lofichevsky, the reading deficit on my bedside table was redressed and in its place grew a multi-coloured, multi-storey house of books. Rather than being numbered from the bottom up, as in real buildings, the floors of my house of books were numbered from the top down. I completed my inspection of the first three floors in no time. Then I called Yurka because I felt like I’d been duped by a dodgy estate agent, fobbed off with a house that was too old, smelled of mothballs and had windows that were dingy and too small. But Yurka craftily pointed out that the books were all on the reading list they’d given us at school, when they handed out the homework diaries and gave us our marks for the year. Ah yes, the reading list. I didn’t have any choice in the matter: the list was compulsory, although to be fair it wasn’t actually that long. I don’t know whether I should continue… I’ll be in trouble with the literature teachers and it’ll certainly blow my chances of ever getting top marks. Maybe I should stop before it’s too late? But then what would I do with my opinions? No, don’t answer that, I know what you grown-ups are like. Who knows what sort of filth you might come out with. You can stick your opinions… where the sun doesn’t shine, or something along those lines. Well, in any case it’s already too late. It’s never a good idea to stop in the middle of something.
The first floor of my book-house was called The Childhood Years of Grandson Bagrov and had been built by the Russian writer Aksakov. Seryozha Bagrov, his young hero, comes to realise that the adults around him don’t always behave with complete sincerity. I don’t know why this is such a surprise – any normal person figures it out for themselves sooner or later. But Seryozha is too close to those around him to notice at first. Maybe I’m too young to really get it or maybe I missed something, but I can’t help thinking that it’s a bit of an exaggeration when adults call my first floor the greatest artistic achievement of Russian literature. Forgive me, dear readers! I still have five years left at school, maybe my opinion will change. But for the time being let’s bear in mind Michel de Montaigne’s maxim. Incidentally, Aksakov himself had his doubts, saying in the introduction, “I do not know whether I should believe everything my memory has preserved.”
The second floor was Lev Tolstoy’s Childhood. His Nikolenka was also a nice enough kid, but I have to admit I found this floor pretty boring too. Nikolenka’s childhood, like that of Seryozha Bagrov, didn’t exactly seem to be the ‘golden’ years of his life, only slightly gilded.
The third floor of my house was built by the writer Garin-Mikhailovsky and was called Tyoma’s Childhood. Now here, in my opinion, the builder managed to really see into Tyoma’s soul. In any case, I wasn’t quite so bored on this floor.
The fourth floor turned out to be far more enjoyable but at the same time more tedious. There wasn’t much about childhood in it, but so much the better – I’d had enough of it already on the first three floors. The literary builder Nabokov had hung his board on the doors to this floor, which was called The Luzhin Defence. Of course, I was upset when the time came to leave. I wasn’t disheartened, though, and hurried on to the fifth floor.
The architect Sanaev had designed an unusual interior for me on this floor, by the name of Bury Me Behind the Skirting-Board. Frankly, this one belonged in a psychiatric hospital. Poor Sasha Savelyev, the idiots he had to live with! What a nightmare. I wonder what Aksakov or Tolstoy would have had to say about it.
I spent a long time wandering around the sixth floor. I walked the length and breadth of it. When I reached the final step and was just about to leave I turned around, retraced my steps and decided that I wasn’t quite ready for the seventh floor just yet. The sixth floor belonged to Salinger and was called The Catcher in the Rye.
After I’d read the fifth and sixth books, the idea that it was “impossible to observe two identical opinions” started to really bug me. They were both good books, amazing books, but even here something was still bothering me. At first I thought it was just because I wasn’t yet capable of profound critical appreciation (I didn’t come up with this ridiculous phrase myself, I’m quoting Oksana Petrovna, my form teacher and also the literature teacher) of such works. So I read them again. No, I’m sorry but something’s not right. Am I just being dense? They’re fascinating books. Mind-blowing. But…
Now some will cast stones at me, some may even call me an ignorant fool or a maximalist demagogue (and it wouldn’t be the first time), but (and don’t ask me to explain, because I can’t) to me there was something contrived in the words of the young inhabitants of these two final floors, which had become so familiar to me. Something was out of place, and this incongruity kept gnawing away at me. It was like the smell of mouldy bread at a lavish banquet. I just couldn’t figure out what it was that was bothering me, preying on my mind. I couldn’t decide whether it was the content of the books or their style. This might strike you as a rather primitive comparison but it felt like I was eating something too salty, or too bland, depending on the particular chapter I happened to be reading.
Then I woke up one night and suddenly realised what it was: both of these books were written by adults. Granted, their main characters are children – Sasha Savelyev is eight, Holden Caulfield sixteen – and they’re apparently expressing their own opinions, as in the works of Aksakov and Tolstoy. But however hard an adult pretends to be a child or an adolescent he will invariably give himself away. A certain phrase, a word, a description… something will always betray him. It’s inevitable. It’s like a jet fighter masquerading as an agricultural aircraft and heading off to spray crops: the farm-hands would never believe it came with good intentions. I apologise sincerely to the esteemed authors. And I repeat: they are incredible books, interesting books that make you think, that make you glance back over your shoulder and look ahead to the future. But these books were written by adults. Can you honestly say that you trust everything your own memory has preserved?
Incidentally, on re-reading Sanaev and Salinger several times I came to the conclusion that it has nothing to do with the age of the authors or their individual memories. Both books are about a different time, different people, different opinions, a different life. Or so it seems. But in any case it’s too late to stop: “…we have to keep going.”
So what does the future hold for me? Back to school on 1st September, and whether I like it or not I’ll have to churn out the usual essay on “What I Did This Summer”. As I’m sure you can imagine, my composition will be the shortest and saddest of the lot: “I was in a car accident in June and spent the rest of the summer in hospital.” I can just imagine them all feeling sorry for me, their sympathetic ooh’s and aah’s… Ugh, I can’t bear the thought of it! I’d rather die. So rather than wasting my time I decided that instead of a crude one-sentence composition I would write down everything I thought about myself and about those I’ve known and hopefully will know for many years to come. You see the difference? The teacher will say, children, write about how you spent the summer. I’ll get up and walk to the front of the class, maybe limping a little, then – bam! – I’ll lay my masterpiece on her desk. All neatly typed up and printed out. There you go, Miss! This is how it will start: “I spent the summer thinking…” Cool, huh? You haven’t changed your mind yet? Well, from now on my thoughts can speak for themselves. And then no one will be able to accuse me of lacking integrity. True, I don’t know what Oksana Petrovna will have to say about a composition like that, but she’s always going on about the importance of honesty. You want the truth, dear grown-ups? Well, here it is: the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.